Breaking big rocks into smaller rocks: the hard core approach to mental health recovery was the title of an article I wrote in 2013. It was published in a journal by the Royal College of Psychiatrists:
I was surprised, though, that there was no follow up from that. Nobody from the world of psychiatry or related fields sought to make further enquiry about the approach I was taking to rehabilitate myself back into a relatively healthy state of mind.
I think maybe it was because what I was doing seemed quite bizarre: undertaking hard physical labour involving a large sledge hammer and a lot of rocks. And yet the improvements I found in my mental well-being were significant, and lasted for several weeks after I returned to my day job, based in an office.
While I don’t believe that all aspects of my complex mental health needs would have been resolved by continuing to do rigorous physical endeavour all day, every day, the experience certainly had a part to play in my overall recovery.
And the principle of breaking things down into smaller chunks is one that I work with every day.
At the turn of the Millennium, I completed a project under the Mind-Millennium Award Scheme.
My project – the Lifelines Project – involved collecting and publishing poems, pictures and self-help strategies from other people who, like me, had suffered from enduring and debilitating depression.
I had not met many of the contributors, and was amazed – honoured – that they trusted me with their personal expressions, all because of the underlying intention of reaching out in the hope of helping others.
If you, yourself, are suffering with depression, I would like to wish you well and tell you that you are not alone.”
Since then, there’s been increased awareness about mental health and how it can be improved. While there remains much to be done in society from the ‘prevent’ and ‘promote’ perspectives, being able to – and even encouraged – to talk about mental health difficulties more openly represents a start.
In my own experience, I eventually got fed up of talking – I’ve never been much good at it anyway. I knew that I needed to take action, to find ways of turning my life around, however difficult or painful that might be. And I knew it would be difficult and painful, to rebuild from a below zero level when I was in my forties.
From somewhere, somehow, I found the resolve to put my head down, prioritise, and push myself through. For a long time I concentrated on work and on developing my internal resilience. Just before I turned 60 I decided to take the plunge and commit to a relationship. I now have a much fuller and richer life than I have ever had before and I’m thankful for that.
Even so, life continues to be difficult and I still take antidepressants – probably always will. But I have other coping skills and strategies, and have also been able to recently retire, taking away work pressures that I could no longer deal with.
I wasn’t able to keep in touch with all the people who contributed to the Lifelines Project but they’ve always remained in my thoughts and I hope that they too have been able to find a way through; a way that works for each of them:
I thought it was fitting to include a poem by one of the Project contributors – Mark:
The night has been terror: depression, cold, confusion. – Ears scream.
Grey – the morning in my front-room.
A tear on my cheek and a child’s grizzle for a few seconds – From my adult form.
1978 was the year I graduated with a degree in Ceramics from Bristol Polytechnic.
I’d reached out to art in my teens as a way of asserting a direction, without knowing where that direction might take me. It was driven by some deep-rooted instinct; an instinct which for a long time I thought had failed me. But it hadn’t.
As it’s turned out, my life has taken many “twists and turns, and loops and leaps”, most of which have left me struggling to find a foothold. Finally, however, I feel I am on firm ground, and astonished to find myself turning back to working with clay, after a break of over 40 years.
What’s even more astonishing is that I’m not only loving working with the medium, I’ve got ideas coming into my head from goodness knows where. I’m not having to push myself just to produce something, anything, as I did when I was at college (although I was proud of what I did produce in the end; it was no easy feat, considering the complexity of mental health problems I was dealing with).
Art didn’t work as a therapy for me when I was younger; the damage went too deep and I had to find ways to dig it out – just like clay has to be dug out. What I’ve got now is malleable and mouldable in whatever way I choose. I can be creative in any way or ways that suit me; working with clay or words; working with my life.
I hope my pots can be poetic; and that my poetry will continue to be potty.
That does by no means mean that I now consider myself to be an ‘expert’ (whatever that means). However, for a long time I struggled to even form them, at any meaningful level, never mind knew what to do once I finally decided to jump in at the deep end, at the age of 24.
Up till then my life had been a relationship desert. Unlike my peers – who all seemed naturals to me – I just didn’t seem to have what it took. I had extreme social anxiety and – though I didn’t know then – depression, associated with an eating disorder and a fear of being laughed at, humiliated, rejected. So I put up walls to protect myself from what I, essentially, most wanted and needed.
Apart from an occasional snog and a few dates that did nothing to stir my emotions or hormones I thought I would never meet the man of my dreams, fall in love, be happy…
Of course, the idea of meeting someone took itself into the realms of romantic fantasy, giving me no experience of managing the reality. When I did ‘meet’ someone who I had a strong connection with, it was from a distance as he was with someone else. The distance got even greater when he went off to the other side of the world to be with her, and I lost my sense of hope.
I ended up marrying someone I hardly knew because he asked me! I’d just lost my job and I had been floundering without any sense of direction since leaving college two years previously – the eating disorder made it hard to concentrate on anything other than finding ways to take my mind off food – so it seemed as if fate had finally decided to go my way. Foolish, I know now. Or was it? Maybe it was, essentially, the only way I was going to learn to swim, by jumping in at the deep end. We lasted three and a half years before he said he wanted us to separate as I was ‘holding him back’.
It would have been good if we could each have gone our separate ways and found happiness with someone else. I did (after I had learnt many more hard lessons in life over many subsequent years). Sadly, he passed away while still a young man, although he had lived life in his own ebullient gregarious way up to then.
At the time when we split up I could have done with some counselling, to help me explore and start to work through all the issues that were suddenly thrown up in my head and in my heart. It was the 1980s then, though, and I hadn’t even heard of counselling.
Instead, I stumbled, crumbled, and fell into another relationship with a lifetime of unresolved ‘stuff’ still bubbling away. It can’t have been a good experience for my partner, I realise that now, although we both tried to make it work, and support each other in our different ways.
My internal volcano finally exploded when, after a joint business venture collapsed, my partner went off with someone else. The extremes of my emotions and state of mind from there went off the Richter scale and I had a breakdown (to put it mildly). I’d wanted eventually to start a family but, in my late thirties by then, I entered a period of significant instability on all levels.
I had to pull out all the stops to pull myself back from the brink and into functionality over a prolonged period and have only just completed a cycle of recovery that I started over 25 years ago.
During that time, I’ve reached out to and found many different ways of learning to live and love.
At one point I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor. The main model that the training was based on was the principle that, with support and time and commitment, the sense of loss doesn’t go away or get smaller, but your life can grow bigger around it. This resonated with me, and I’ve found that it has helped me to reach out and grow into an awareness of life that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had to learn how to find a way through.
For over five years I’ve been in a relationship with a lovely, loving, funny, kind, clever man who also struggled with relationships when he was younger. (I think there must be a lot of us around.)
Even so, the final stages of my recovery cycle have not been easy; I have had to do more than tie up a few loose ends and threads. ‘Out of the blue’ my brain took me to places where it had stored memories from 40 years ago, locked away because they were too painful for me to bear before.
I’m well on the way to having worked through them now, thanks to having the loving arms and heart of my partner to help me feel the sadness that I needed to feel; that I wished I could have felt at the time, for myself and those I was involved with.
The sadness was worse, for having stayed so buried for so long as extreme trauma that hit me during my breakdown period: trauma associated with decisions I’d made; paths I’d taken. Edvard Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream’, just about sums up how I felt inside at that time; and then some; and then some more. The collage I made in 2001 presents my own version of that scream; the scream of the agonised soul.
Recently, I’ve come across The Hawaiian Healing Art of Ho’oponopono – Forever Conscious. It’s said that things come to us in our lives when we most need them and/or are receptive to them. I most certainly needed this and it was an utter revelation to me. It has helped me to heal from feelings of guilt that have haunted me for decades, all rooted in the difficulties I had in forming, managing and ending relationships in the past.
People had tried to reach me, and I had tried to reach out to them. Ultimately, though, I needed to reach within myself – however long it took – and find what I needed to find. I’ve been fortunate to be able to finally reach that goal from within the protective space of a loving relationship.
I think I’ve learnt a lot about relationships, including knowing how important it is to keep working at them, and know that there is always more to learn. Most of all though, I’m loving now being able to love and be loved. It is worth working for, however long it takes.
We all know this and are likely to have had direct experience of these benefits.
Why, then, can it still be so difficult to find the motivation to exercise?
It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with all my life, experiencing barriers associated with body image when I was younger. I knew swimming was good exercise but would only ever go to a swimming pool or wear a swimsuit on a beach if I’d starved myself to be thin enough to feel able to do that. And even then, I felt morbidly self-conscious about how I looked. It took a long time and a lot of working through masses amount of personal ‘stuff’ before I could stop worrying and start enjoying swimming. My partner and I even go wild swimming now, and it feels wonderful.
I tried jogging, but always found it so hard to build myself up to a regular routine. Lacking in willpower and discipline some people might say. Struggling with severe depression, anxiety and low self-esteem was the real reason. I’ve continued to struggle ever since, but have also never given up. Now 65, I’ve been doing on-line exercise classes, including yoga and pilates during lockdown. Last summer we did some cycling around our local lanes. We still both find that it’s an effort to go out, sometimes, but give each other a push and/or moral support when we need it. Whatever it takes.
What’s the alternative? An inactive old age with all the complications that brings?
I’ve always found it difficult to go to a gym or to exercise classes after work. Just getting through a day involved such a major effort for me. So I looked for ways to combine exercise into my daily routine. Cycling to work meant that I often turned up looking like a drowned rat, but it did help.
Even so, I continued to struggle with depression, and continued to find it hard to motivate myself to exercise enough to help it lift on anything more than a temporary basis. I felt like the only way I could sustain the ‘lift’ would be to train as if I was an Olympic athlete. I have neither the physique nor the talent to be anything remotely akin to athletic and, like most people, have had to commit a significant amount of my time to earning a living and keeping up with the usual day to day domestic activities.
There were times as well when I felt that the more I exercised, the deeper my depression went, after the initial ‘buzz’ fell away.
I continued to have to do a lot of work to try and shift it, with exercise being one of a number of tools and techniques that I’ve tried and tested over the years. It has been, and continues to be, a lifetime endeavour. I think that this is in part because of the way emotions are stored in the body, a matter which has been increasingly recognised and written about including the following article by Sean Grover (2018):
For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. Certainly, not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to stress, recurring patterns emerged.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Repression
Fear is the driving force behind repression, and is frequently rooted in your past. Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression fuels psychosomatic symptoms and self-destructive patterns.
In his article in Psychology Today, Sean Grover goes on to identify the ‘Top 10 Tension Areas for Unwanted Feelings’ as:
1.Lower Back: Anger 2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear 3. Heart & Chest: Hurt 4. Headache: Loss of control 5. Neck/Shoulder Tension: Burdens 6. Fatigue: Resentments 7. Numbness: Trauma 8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety 9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression 10. Insomnia: Loss of self
I find this interesting and helpful, relating these areas to recent and past experiences.
I did a lot of work on repressed anger at one point, including going to a workshop where I was encouraged to take a lot of it out on a punch bag. The physicality of the release at the time was phenomenal (although I did go into a kind of ‘toxic shock’ afterwards, so I would not recommend anyone trying this approach without a very strong support network around them).
Some years later, experiencing stress at work, I searched out volunteering opportunities, finding an outlet by doing trail maintenance work where I could break big rocks into smaller rocks to make hardcore with a sledgehammer. I came back refreshed and invigorated. Although the effects did wear off after a while, I have so far – touch wood – not suffered from lower back problems.
Fatigue and resentments strike a chord with me – I’m so good at hanging on to them, no wonder I feel tired all the time!
So, while I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to this point, and to feel largely positive about the position I’m in, there’s still a lot to do.
It’s often the enormity – or perceived enormity of the challenge – that puts us off dealing with it, which leads to repression, which leads to depression….
There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions, especially when difficulties are deep-rooted. I just keep reminding myself that it’s all about the next step. And the one after that. And the one after that. It does get easier. Miraculously – it feels to me – my steps feel a lot lighter, at the age I’m at now, than they did when I was young, all those years ago! Something must be working, somehow. Barriers can be overcome. It’s not easy, but it’s worth working at it, bit by bit.
Today I pile on warm clothes push toes into boots hands into gloves fix helmet on head put pressure on one pedal after another with grey treads turning on icy tarmac in reflective waistcoat I propel myself down the hill looking like a wasp on wheels
Feet freeze into tennis balls wind works its way in between folds finding skin it’s an easy ride but I’m glad to arrive at work this morning
Evening comes and I do it all over again this time lungs stretch and scream at the incline that challenges me to stop but thoughts of home and rest are the pull
Pushing, pushing, pushing keeps the wheels turning until I arrive at the gate maybe a bit late hair wet with sweat pedals finally still pushing finished for today
Anybody who has had depression knows that one of the most difficult things to deal with is that awful desolation that drowns you as you wake up from whatever sleep you can get.
It is an experience that you have to have had to know what it feels like, when the thought of even having to get up and get dressed, let alone do anything else, is beyond daunting.
There was a time when I could only wake up and get up by setting a first alarm clock to go off several hours beforehand, then another some time after that, and another later still. When I finally did get out of bed, my first port of call was a strong cup of coffee (appropriately named ‘Rocket Fuel’) with which I swallowed my anti-depressant tablet. Eventually I could then get dressed and ready for work.
I’ve started to struggle again with this aspect depression, after years of having trained myself to get up without too much snooze time between alarms. The fact that my partner now brings me a good strong cup of tea helps enormously, as does not having any time pressures at the moment. Even so, the tasks associated with waking up, getting up and getting dressed should not be underestimated for anyone who is suffering from depression. Like a lot of things, breaking the process down into small steps can be a good strategy. First one sock, and then the other.
I’m working towards being one of those people who springs out of bed in order to ‘seize the day’. Just because I’m slow to start, though, doesn’t me I don’t appreciate and value. It just means that I have to take my time to get myself (literally) geared up, even at a basic level.
This is one place (of many) where the poem in my recently posted Poetry Rule No. 9b comes in. Don’t judge a book by its cover …
In case you don’t want to buy the book, or perhaps as a taster (I’m one of 12 poets in the completed work), here are my poems from the collection:
Now at the Pinnacle 14-and-a-half per cent proof point of my existence I’ve reached the Nottage Hill sub-station of my life I haven’t got a Sauvignon Blanc’s clue about what to do next other than to ‘méthode-champenoise’ my way through and hope that if the cork crumbles the bottle won’t be blue and the sieve will be fine so that just for now I can at least drink the wine
I can dance
I can dance without moving my feet at all I don’t have to do the foxtrot or quickstep my way to any ball I can cry without moving my lips I can laugh without making a sound all I have to do is know that the earth is flat, it isn’t round The dance is mine to make up from the music of the wind a sense of something swirling in and around my mind I don’t need a choreographer an audience or loud applause I just need to dance in my own way and then I’ll dance some more I can dance without moving my feet at all on and on and on and on it is my dance my life my call
Here’s to Wealth!
Cheers my dear to the love that you bring into my life and though I never want to be your wife I want to share with you all the good things that life brings
I love it when you sing as I know it comes from within your soul and as we learn together to love each other something magical unfolds
The trees without leaves that you hung around my neck and from my ears help to take away all my fears of things undone of words unsaid the sadness of never nurturing a child upon my breast
Where once was hope and then despair becomes a sense of stillness in the air and from that place of breathing and of wings comes freedom to wonder and wander into the rich realms of being together feeding the birds with the wealth of our love
Heading for instant gratification no time to waste or spare I take my mug into the kitchen only to find a queue of people there
Halted, suddenly, empty cup in hand my thoughts spill over into the needs of others heads bowed or lifted as we together stand
I only needed coffee and soon the queue was gone my waiting time was over but for someone else it had only just begun
I’m also proud of the back cover copy that I wrote for the book:
A relationship break-up can be a difficult experience at any age. It isn’t always easy to see the opportunity beyond the heartache, and even less easy to find ways of putting the experience into words.
The triumphs of Maria Stephenson’s emergence into a new life as a writer and teacher are embodied in her collection of ‘Poetry for the Newly Single Forty Something’ (2017). Maria didn’t just stop at publishing her own collection though. She inspired others to explore their creative approaches to the theme, leading to this exciting anthology, which is more than the sum of its poems.
The words of each poet paint a picture of part of their own unique life story. Demonstrating diverse responses to life and writing challenges, threads of commonality emerge and unite.
What are you waiting for? Dive in, explore, share in the joy of words and wonders of life that these writers have explored and shared. These poems aren’t just about being newly single, or about being forty something, they are about being – essentially – human.
The reason for my pride is partly because I think it stands well as a piece of writing in its own right (and even being able to credit myself with that is a remarkable* achievement in its own right), and partly because of what it represents for me in terms of having come through what I’ve come through, still fighting, still writing, still reaching out.
* https://iamremarkable.withgoogle.com/ (#IamRemarkable is a Google initiative empowering women and underrepresented groups to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and beyond.)